Tampa Bay Lightning 2016 Offseason Plans

Coming off a Stanley Cup Finals appearance against the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015, the Tampa Bay Lightning had high hopes for a return in the 2015-2016 season. The team came very close to reaching that goal, losing in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. There were many ups and downs over the course of the year, including some bad luck with injuries that may have prevented the Lightning from raising the Cup this year.

Tampa Bay has a deep and talented roster, and that depth was tested this season. Injuries ravaged the lineup so much that the AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch had to play defensemen as forwards just to fill the lineup. One of the main reasons the team was able to sustain its winning ways was goalie Ben Bishop. Bishop led the NHL with a 2.06 Goals Against Average and was second with a .926 save percentage (among goalies with at least 15 appearances). His injury in Game 1 of the Conference Finals may have been the difference between moving on and going home.

Pending Free Agents: Everyone in the hockey world knows of the impending unrestricted free agency of Steven Stamkos. The 26 year old team Captain is one of the best players in the world, and will be highly coveted by every team in the league. He was forced to miss almost 2 months of the regular season and playoffs because of a blood clot, but that won’t hold back any potential suitors. General Manager Steve Yzerman likely will not offer Stamkos as much as some other teams, so it will be up to him to determine if he prefers the familiarity of the Lightning or the money of a new destination.

Another important free agent (restricted) is 22 year old Nikita Kucherov. The Russian winger led the team in scoring in both the regular and postseason, tallying 19 points in 17 playoff games. He is in line for a significant payday, possibly around $6.5 million per year.

Draft Picks: Tampa doesn’t pick until late in the first round, so it is hard to imagine they will find a prospect ready to play in the pros. A potential option to move up in the draft is to trade disgruntled winger Jonathan Drouin. The 3rdoverall pick of the 2013 draft, Drouin’s time with the Lightning has been tense to say the least.

After being demoted to Syracuse during the season, he left the team and requested a trade. After no trade was made, he returned on fire. He scored 9 goals in his first 10 games in the AHL, and put up 14 points in 17 playoff games. A team looking to make a splash and win soon like the Montreal Canadiens might be interested to deal their top 10 pick for him.

Free Agent Additions: The top free agent targets for the Lightning are their own Stamkos and Kucherov. Other than that, they will likely not be too active in free agency, looking to add some depth and maybe a backup goaltender.

The Rookie Goalie

Matt Murray is 22 years old. Most 22 year olds are maybe just finding their careers, perhaps thinking about starting a family, probably on their fourth or fifth job in their lifetime. He now has hockey’s greatest prize staring him in the face.
He worked his way into the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup due to a concussion to top goalkeeper Marc-Andre Fleury and an injury to backup Jeff Zatkoff. Matt Murray would never look back.
With numbers like a 2.09 Goals Against Average, a .925 save percentage, one shutout, and 14 wins, it will be hard not to hand over the Conn Smythe Trophy to this extremely talented young man. He will probably have to beat out Sidney Crosby for the award but there are worse things than coming in second to the world’s best player.
There have been numerous instances when Murray has come up huge for the Penguins, but the most striking quality is his consistency. He has not had to “stand on his head” for any games, which is also a testament to the solid team in front of him, and he has not had to make “spectacular” saves.
Ten of the Penguins last eleven wins have come by one goal. This means that their opponents are throwing everything they have at Murray in the last 3 or four minutes. In every one of those games Matt Murray has stood his ground by simply doing what he does best: playing consistent.
Murray has received tons of praise from some of the best of the best in goaltenders. Martin Gerber, the goaltender who got the Carolina Hurricanes to the playoffs before ceding to rookie goalie Cam Ward, had this to say: “He didn’t worry about what was going on around him, he’d just go play and stay calm, like it was something he had done his whole life.”
More praise from Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild: “The thing that has been most impressive to me has been the way he has handled some very tough situations.” Dubnyk was referring two situations: the tying goal and eventual overtime goal for the loss in Game 3 which Murray followed by winning Game 4, and losing his starting job to Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final only to win Games 6 and 7.
Matt Murray is at the forefront of joining some very elite company. There have only been four rookie goaltenders who have led their teams to the Stanley Cup. Murray is on the verge of joining the names Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward, and Antti Niemi as rookie goaltenders to lead their team to a Stanley Cup. That’s four names out of 123 years of the Stanley Cup being awarded.

Even though Matt Murray is headed toward the most important game of his young life, he is doing the same things he is doing every other time he straps on his pads. That is the essence of a great goaltender. No changes. Same repetitions. Same meals. Nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter if it is Game 7 against the Toronto Marlies or Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Consistency matters.

Conn Smythe and the Kessel Run

At the conclusion of this year’s Stanley Cup series the Professional Hockey Writers Association will huddle up to debate and vote on the recipient of the 2016 Conn Smythe Trophy. A tradition that goes back to the 1964-1965 season, the award is presented to the player who is determined to be the most valuable to his team during the playoffs. The trophy is presented immediately after the game before the official presentation of the Stanley Cup to the winning team.

At this point we don’t know which team will hold aloft the famed Stanley Cup but with a 3-1 lead going into tonight’s game it seems likely that the Pittsburgh Penguins will garner their franchise’s 4thchampionship. As for the Conn Smythe award? Things are a little more complicated there.
It seems to be generally agreed that there are 3 main candidates for the award. Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, and Matt Murray. Kris Letang’s name has been thrown around as well but most eyes are focusing on the former three to be the most likely to add some metal to their trophy shelf.

For Crosby the Playoff MVP award would one of the few he hasn’t won over his 11-year career. You will recall that Evgeni Malkin took the honor when the Penguins won the Cup in 2009. A vote for Crosby wouldn’t exactly be an honorary one though. With 17 points in 22 games Crosby has definitely contributed mightily, especially given that 3 of those goals were game winners in the Eastern Conference Finals against Tampa Bay. Those numbers also indicate Crosby willingness to adopt the Penguins defensive style of play rather than going for the big offense. Nobody will bat an eye if the trophy lands in Crosby’s hands.

As for Matt Murray, it’s hard to find a better story than a rookie goaltender who posted 14 wins in 19 games while maintaining a 2.09 goal against average. His performance has led many to ask if the Penguins would have even made it this far with starter Marc-Andre Fleury in the net. If he manages one more victory he will have tied the record for most playoff wins by a rookie. Sounds like MVP material doesn’t it?

Then there’s Phil Kessel, the much-maligned right-winger who carried Toronto’s woes like a yoke around his neck. Now here is a story. As a Maple Leaf it seemed like Kessel was to blame for every loss, accused of every kind of infraction, and forced to explain the team’s shortcomings every single day. Fast-forward to the present and Kessel has scored 21 points in 22 games as a Penguin. His 10-playoff goals are the most on the team and he skates with the fabled HBK line that has acted like the rocket fuel to power the Pittsburgh jet engines. Nothing feels better than to prove someone else terribly wrong and wouldn’t we all feel just a little glee if Kessel were able to hoist that trophy over his shoulders thus shaking off all the bad mojo that’s been sitting there for years? Yes. Yes we would.

No matter who wins this year’s Conn Smythe they will find themselves stepping into a long line of talent and leadership. 42 different players have held the award over its 48 year history and whether it be Crosby, Murray, or Kessel they will all fit in nicely.

NHL’s expansion plans should be made clear later in June

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently spoke with the media concerning re-alignment and expansion within the league. The league currently sits at 30 franchises with 16 of them being the Eastern Conference with eight teams per division and 14 teams in the Western Conference with seven clubs per division. Bettman said if the league does expand, which would be the first time since 2000, he wouldn’t really want to move any of the existing clubs from the East to the West or vice versa. Both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings relocated to the Eastern Conference from the West before the 2013/14 campaign and he believes they should now stay there.

Bettman stated there isn’t anything new concerning expansion right now, but that could change later in June when the league’s board of governors meet in Las Vegas, Nevada for the annual NHL Awards show. The board is set to discuss expansion bids from both Quebec City and Las Vegas. The commissioner said the executive committee may recommend no expansion; one team, two teams, or deferred expansion and they’ll make this recommendation before the board of governors gets together. He mentioned that Kansas City isn’t in the running for an expansion franchise and nobody from Seattle, Washington has ever filed an application as the city is still trying to work out details on a new arena.

This basically leaves Quebec City and Las Vegas as serious locations for new franchises and both cities have brand new arenas to ice an NHL team. Of course, Quebec City had a franchise in the past when the Quebec Nordiques played in the league started out in the old World Hockey Association (WHA) from 1972 to 1979. The franchise then joined the NHL when several WHA clubs merged into the league and the Nordiques played in the NHL from 1979 to 1995. The franchise still exists technically though as it moved to Denver due to financial difficulties and became the Colorado Avalanche. Along with Winnipeg, Quebec would be one of the smallest markets in the NHL and the city itself believes it will be awarded a franchise sooner or later.

Placing a team in Las Vegas may be a bit of a risk since the city has never had a professional franchise in any of the major North American sports. However, the new arena has already opened and is hoping to use it for an expansion team. The city is typically filled with visitors from all over North America each week and there seems to be enough interest to host a franchise. Las Vegas advertises itself as the world’s entertainment capital and it held a season-ticket campaign back in 2014 to gauge interest in a franchise. It seemed to be successful enough as 13,000 season tickets were snapped up.
Many Canadian fans would likely head to the Las Vegas heat on weekend getaways during the cold northern winters and it’s believed they’d be interested in buying hockey packages. A franchise in Sin City may also do brisk walk-up sales on game days as well. Other possible expansion cities in the future could include Seattle as well as Houston, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Hamilton Ontario. However, it’s not likely that Toronto would be given one as the simple fact is the city might not have the fan support.

The Maple Leafs currently rely on corporate ticket sales to survive and have had problems selling out the Air Canada during the club’s last two woeful seasons. The owners, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) have taken to emailing members of Leaf Nation on game days to try and sell off unsold tickets. If Leafs can’t sell out their home games then things wouldn’t bode too well for a new franchise. In addition, many fans in the Greater Toronto Area now decide to make a 90-minute trip to Buffalo, New York to see the Sabres and pay more reasonable prices for tickets. At the moment though, it seems Quebec City and Las Vegas are the only serious bidders for expansion. If the NHL does decide to add two more teams to make it 32 franchises then it would be common sense to have 16 teams in the East and 16 in the West. This means two clubs would need to be added to the Western Conference.

That wouldn’t be a problem for Las Vegas, but Quebec City doesn’t make sense in the West. This means a current Eastern Conference team may need to be persuaded to join the West. As Bettman said, he isn’t a fan of asking clubs to move and he definitely wouldn’t ask Columbus or Detroit to head back to the Western Conference. The commissioner may need to offer some sort of financial compensation or other types of perks to find a volunteer form the Eastern Conference to switch divisions. 

Boston Bruins 2016 Offseason Plans

In March 2016, the Boston Bruins looked destined to return to the playoffs after a one year hiatus. However, the team limped to the end of the season, losing 9 of 12 games and missing out on the postseason because of a tie breaker with the Detroit Red Wings. Once a perennial championship contender, the Bruins have been only average the last two years and may be on the verge of some major changes.

Boston was led by a trio of 30 year old forwards: Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Loui Eriksson. The three scored the most points on the squad, while 28 year old Brad Marchand was tops with 37 goals (4th in points). They finished as the 5th highest scoring team in the league, but their defensive and goaltending shortcomings kept them from the postseason. Tuukka Rask, the former Vezina Trophy winner, was simply average this season, in part because of a weak defensive group in front of him.

Pending Free Agents: 30 goal scorer Eriksson is an unrestricted free agent and will almost assuredly take a big money deal somewhere else. With the money the team has invested in Krejci, Bergeron, Marchand, Rask and 39 year old defenseman Zdeno Chara (total of almost $33M), Eriksson will likely find a new home.

Defenseman Torey Krug is a restricted free agent, but as one of the few young, bright spots on defense, the team will have to give him an extension. Backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson played well, but the team may move on and give the spot to 2012 first round pick Malcolm Subban.

Draft Picks: The Bruins have two first round picks in this year’s draft after acquiring San Jose’s. While neither of the picks are very high (14thand 30th), the team could use them to either move up in the draft or trade for a quality pro. The team desperately needs youth on defense, but at 14, they may be stuck taking a forward instead of reaching for a less talented blue liner.

Free Agent Additions: There are not many top pairing defensemen available as free agents, but the team could make a play for Keith Yandle or Alex Goligoski. Both would be a major improvement over what they have now, but they won’t come cheap. Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie would be an expensive trade target, but he would fill a huge need. Sami Vatanen and Jonas Brodin are also potential trade targets.

Sidney Crosby: Not Scoring But Leading

The Pittsburgh Penguins have won the first two games in the Stanley Cup Final. Some people look to the goaltender as the reason for winning and while Matt Murray is playing well, their captain, Sidney Crosby, is playing better.
Although he hasn’t scored a goal yet, he has been instrumental in his team’s success so far against the San Jose Sharks.
Crosby is generating all kinds of scoring chances, especially with a devastating backhand, for himself and his teammates. Whether it is a perfectly placed backhanded, cross ice pass in Game 1 or winning the draw for the overtime winner in Game 2, Crosby is making the Sharks work hard to keep him off the scoresheet.
With the defence of San Jose occupied with Crosby making great plays all the time, the other players are able to generate a ridiculous number of shots on goal every game. The HBK line of Hagelin, Bonino, and Kessel are the most obvious benefactors of not having to face to opposing teams top defences, including the Sharks. This line has generated 50 points so far and show no signs of slowing down.
Speaking of the overtime winning goal scored by rookie Conor Sheary and assisted by Kris Letang, it has become known that Crosby orchestrated the play from the beginning. This does not simply mean “i’m gonna win the faceoff and then you pass and you shoot.” Crosby switched the defencemen to get the puck to Letang, switched the forwards for Sheary to be on the boards, then told him to find a sweet spot in the middle of the ice. Crosby was also right in front of the net when the puck went in, meaning he knew the play and was there in case of a rebound.
Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals was game number 100 for the Penguins this year. That is a lot of hockey and on off-days most players take the day to rest. Guess who was in the rink practising one-timers and faceoffs after game 99? Crosby was one of six players on the ice for the optional practise with only fourth liner Eric Fehr to have also played the night before.
Almost everyone who knows Sidney Crosby has said that his work ethic is second to none. Recently, his sister and assistant coach Rick Tocchet have commented that he is always doing something to stay sharp. Whether it is working out in the gym, practising on the ice after game number 99, or something as simple as eating right and going to bed early, Crosby is always looking to better his game. To get that little extra edge.

This little things translate into big game plays like the play in the Game 2 overtime. It take lots of practise, patience, and dedication to make yourself one of the best players on the planet. Sidney Crosby does these little things all the time and that is why he has lifted the Pittsburgh Penguins to two wins away from the Stanley Cup.

Root for the Sharks! You Know You Want To.

For years people have been predicting the San Jose Sharks would win the Cup. Remember 2008 when the Sharks finished the season with franchise records in wins (53) and points (117) only to be knocked off by 8th seed Anaheim? Or the four game sweep by the Blackhawks in 2010 after leading the Western Conference? There’s also the 2014 first-round loss to the Los Angeles Kings after being up 3-0 in the series. Needless to say the San Jose Sharks have had the players, the coaches, and the skills needed to be knocking on the Stanley Cup door for years, if not decades, but until this year they haven’t been allowed in.

All of which leaves fans in a strange position. Is this the year it’s safe to put your emotions out there and root for a championship or will hearts be crushed as the Stanley Cup eludes them once again? It’s a tough decision but there is some evidence that your love and support will not be wasted. The San Jose Sharks have shown their mettle in the playoffs this year.

It began with California rivals, the LA Kings, in the first round. San Jose needed to take the series not only to advance but also to wipe the slate clean as far as the Kings go. Remember that 2014 series? That kind of loss sticks with a team and it needed to be cleansed. Fortunately, it worked and a combination of great goaltending, staunch defense, and a guy by the name of Joe Pavelski gave San Jose a 4-1 series win. After the win in Game 5, first-year coach Pete DeBoer summed it up, “I haven’t been around here for some of the stuff that’s gone on in the past. I’m sure for some guys, they felt like we exorcised some demons tonight.”

Next came the Nashville Predators and a 7-game series that almost sent the Sharks back to San Jose with their hats in their hands. Fortunately second-line center, Logan Couture, decided that simply wasn’t going to happen on his watch, setting a franchise record for most points in a series with 6 goals and 5 assists. The team also saved their best game for the last, beating Nashville 5-0 to win the series 4-3.

On to St. Louis where the Sharks took the Blues out in 6 games. There were two main factors that contributed to the Sharks success in the series. First, coming back after losses. A 2-1 loss in Game 1 was followed by a resounding 4-0 victory in Game 2. After a 6-3 loss in Game 4 the Sharks came back with a forceful 6-3 win in Game 5. The second major factor was, once again, a guy named Joe Pavelski who dominated the Blues defense with 4 goals and 5 assists in the 6 game series. Pavelski is leading the post-season with 13 goals and he’s second in points at 22. The Blues simply couldn’t stop him.

And thus the San Jose Sharks have advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history. After years of being told they were the team to beat they have finally earned the mantle and the only thing standing between them and the Stanley Cup are the Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite a 3-2 loss in Game 1, the San Jose Sharks may be destined for this championship. Go ahead and root for them. It’s going to be okay.

Why is fighting rare in the NHL playoffs?

Fighting may technically be illegal in the NHL, but let’s face it, while the league may not actively promote the behaviour it definitely tolerates it. While those who engage in fisticuffs in other leagues and sports are thrown out of the game and often suspended, NHL players simply sit for five minutes in the sin bin. There are many hockey fans who believe fighting should be banned totally from the world’s best hockey league while others still believe it’s a part of the game. However, it’s hard to understand how staged fights between two fourth-line players can affect the outcome of a contest.

We often see WWE-type fights between a pair of players who may see the ice a total of five minutes between them per night. Some of these premeditated bouts take place before the puck has even been dropped while they’re playing on their first shifts of the game. Those who want to see fighting banned don’t understand how there can be any animosity built up between the two combatants at this stage. However, they do understand spur-of-the-moment rage when somebody is speared or slashed and they settle their differences by dropping the gloves.

The fact is, hockey fights rarely affect a the outcome because the majority of them take place late in a game when one team has a considerable lead and the game has more or less already been decided. At this point, players who may have a grudge against an opponent feel they can even the score by trying to pound the daylights out of them. They believe it’s the perfect time to let their fists fly since the game is out of hand and they won’t be placing their team in jeopardy. When you see two players from non-playoff bound teams going at it in a mid-December match with the score 7-1, there doesn’t seem much point to the exercise.

If we fast forward to the playoffs though, things are certainly different. There’s definitely something on the line here, namely the Stanley Cup. If there was ever a time for fighting in the NHL this is definitely it. For those who believe a fight can spark a team and wake them out of their doldrums, there’s no better time to start swinging than in the postseason. If you’re facing a do-or-die, elimination game and find yourself trailing 3-0 on the scoreboard this could be the perfect time. If nothing else seems to be working and you’re going home if you don’t win, then why not try to jumpstart your team at this point with an energizing fight?

But for some reason, that isn’t how things work in the NHL. Pro-fighting fans have forever stated that a fight can lift a team and bring it together, but we rarely see one take place when it means the most. There is an occasional fight during the playoffs, but fans are mostly “entertained” by players face-washing each other in scrums after each and every whistle. It’s no wonder an average 60-minute playoff contest takes about three hours to play. But if these players are willing to risk putting their team a man short for two or four minutes in scrums, why aren’t they willing to drop their gloves ?   

The logical answer here is because there’s no need for fighting at all in the league since it doesn’t help decide the outcome of a game. If the NHL banned fighting altogether and two players were riled up enough with to ignore the consequences, then perhaps fans would see a legitimate fight between two angry players, not the staged versions they’re treated to today. As long as fighting is tolerated by the NHL, players are wasting their energy on regular-season bouts when the playoffs mean so much more.